Amira & Hamza — An interview with Samira Ahmed!

A few days ago, I wrote about the illustrated map I drew for Samira Ahmed’s Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds. Here is the link to that post: Map Process — Amira & Hamza.

Photo pinched from Samira Ahmed. Cover illustrated by Kim Ekdahl and designed by Karina Granda

Samira very kindly agreed to let me interview her for this blog, about the book and its world(s)!

About Samira: Samira Ahmed is the bestselling author of Love, Hate & Other FiltersInternmentMad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, and  Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, as well as a Ms. Marvel comic book mini-series.  Her poetry, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies including the New York TimesTake the MicColor Outside the LinesVampires Never Get Old and A Universe of Wishes. You can read more about her, her books, events, and more over at

KJ: You combine the physically observable world (in fact, astronomy is a big part of how the book starts!) with many things the readers won’t see so often through a telescope. How do these two parts of Amira & Hamza come together?

SA: Part of what made writing this middle grade fantasy fun for me was intertwining the known world with the unknown. It presents an interesting challenge to the characters, especially Amira, who is very much a science nerd and a logical, data-driven kid. What happens when the world you know is challenged by the fantastical? By the things you have to (maybe not so willingly) suspend your belief to confront? Those questions create tension and conflict in the story and are a space where the character can grow. And it also reflects our history. As Amira says, sometimes the magical is just science we don’t understand yet.

KJ: In between the adventure of Amira & Hamza, there is some very useful science. How (and why) did you decide to balance those two aspects?

SA: Science is real. And science is incredibly cool! Those are two facts that Amira understands at her core. Science allows us to understand the world we live in; it allows us to understand ourselves and our space in the natural world and I think that’s absolutely amazing. When confronted with some seemingly impossible situations, I really wanted Amira and Hamza to try and science their way out of things. Yes, there’s magic in the book. But science is also magical and I wanted to show that.

KJ: Is the box of the moon real?

SA: Yes! In a way. Al-Biruni (973-1050), one of the great scientists of Islam’s Golden Age (9th-13th centuries) designed the Box of the Moon—a mechanical astronomical calendar that had eight gear wheels and a gear train. It was considered an early processing machine. Though there is no existing “original” Box of the Moon artifact, I thought it would be cool to have one as a key element to the story. As a kid, I loved learning about ancient tools and instruments! And I wanted to incorporate a bit of medieval Islamic history into Amira & Hamza’s story.

KJ: Amira & Hamza is full of helpful, antagonistic, and warring beings, startling and colourful! [I had a wonderful time diving into reference images!] Where did they come from, and how did you fit them together with a story of two people who’ve grown up not seeing devs and peris on a regular basis? Do you have a favourite creature or being in the books?

SA: Jinn. Peris. Devs. Ghuls. These are ancient creatures and their countless stories and legends might be new to the Western world, but Amira & Hamza were familiar with stories of jinn and other fire spirits as are most people from South Asian Muslim backgrounds (and likely those of any Muslim background regardless of ethnicity/nationality). Specifically for Amira & Hamza, I was inspired by the Hamzanama—or the Adventures of Amir Hamza—an incredible Islamic epic about the warrior Amira Hamza. The tales of his exploits traveled across the Islamic world through oral tradition. It is believed that the legend began in Persia, well over a thousand years ago! My two favorite fantastical characters in Amira & Hamza are Maqbool and Aasman Peri—for very different reasons. But both were very fun characters to write and were critical to the story.

KJ: There are a lot of worlds in Amira & Hamza. Or rather, a lot of bits of worlds, and small worlds, and subworlds… It was quite exciting to try and draw them all on one piece of paper! How did the idea for/design of the worlds come together? And how did you keep track of them? (And do you have a favourite?)

SA: You depicted them beautifully! Truly, one of the things I’ve always wanted as an author was a cool map in my book and you gave me one! In the original tales of the Hamzanama, the warrior Amir Hamza travels to the fantastical lands of Qaf and visits many of the same tilisms and realms that I wrote about in the book. Of course, as I wrote them into the world of Amira & Hamza, I created them to fit the narrative and built them as intertwined—as you showed them—so Amira & Hamza would be compelled to travel forward to their quest’s end. I actually drew (very, very rough) sketches of the world of Qaf before I started writing so I could figure out how my characters would physically move through the world and how each place they visited presented a new danger and a new challenge.

Soon I will also post an interview with art director Karina Granda — keep an eye out for that! You can read about the map process here: Map Process — Amira & Hamza.

And do check out Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, a rollicking, thrilling middle grade adventure through science, mythology, poetry, and more worlds than you usually get in one map!

A thrilling fantasy adventure intertwining Islamic legend and history.

On the day of a rare super blue blood moon eclipse, twelve-year-old Amira and her little brother, Hamza, can’t stop their bickering while attending a special exhibit on medieval Islamic astronomy. While stargazer Amira is wowed by the amazing gadgets, a bored Hamza wanders off, stumbling across the mesmerizing and forbidden Box of the Moon. Amira can only watch in horror as Hamza grabs the defunct box and it springs to life, setting off a series of events that could shatter their world—literally.

Suddenly, day turns to night, everyone around Amira and Hamza falls under a sleep spell, and a chunk of the moon breaks off, hurtling toward them at lightning speed, as they come face-to-face with two otherworldly creatures: jinn.

The jinn reveal that the siblings have a role to play in an ancient prophecy. Together, they must journey to the mystical land of Qaf, battle a great evil, and end a civil war to prevent the moon—the stopper between realms—from breaking apart and unleashing terrifying jinn, devs, and ghuls onto earth. Or they might have to say goodbye to their parents and life as they know it, forever.…

Map process: Amira and Hamza

Photo pinched from Samira Ahmed. Cover illustrated by Kim Ekdahl and designed by Karina Granda

Very soon I will be posting an interview with Samira Ahmed herself, author of (among other things!) Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, and with Karina Granda, the wonderful art director. But first: the process behind this slightly unusual map.

You see, this was not a map of a small part of a world, or even just of one world. The adventures of Amira and Hamza take them not only from Chicago to the Himalayas, but then through many, many interconnected tiny worlds (tilisms), joined to each other by somewhat-metaphysical, but physically navigable, coils. And I had to fit this all on the usual double-page space allowed for a more traditional map.

I started by sketching through the book, drawing notes to myself of descriptions, geographies, references, creatures, beings, and dumpsters, and noting key descriptions, and testing out how to create certain effects (e.g. buildings of gold) when the final drawing would be in black lines.

But as I drew, I puzzled about the shape of the world — whether to draw the tilisms floating in space (but then what about Chicago?), or as a chart? Or a board game?

It was interesting to have to think about the purpose of a map like this. Not for traditional navigation, to be sure, but to create a physical representation of something that shouldn’t be possible, and to give a sense not only of the place(s) in which a story happens, and the beings you might meet along the way, but also the feeling of it: busy and ornate, full of life and wonder and danger and good advice. (Some previous thoughts on maps.)

However, as the book begins with a visit to an astronomy exhibition, and involves some significant lunar events, I started digging into beautiful old charts of the stars and planets (here are a few sketches), and that’s where I found the answer.

Down at the bottom is the tiniest drawing of a figure as a game piece — that was for one of the board-game approaches.

I suggested using an astrolabe as the base for the map’s design: the slightly offset rings could represent the different worlds, with clear boundaries between them, and plenty of room for decoration and the potential for movement. And the curving, vine-like overlays of an astrolabe would be a perfect guide for the coils connecting the worlds. (Also, I enjoy industrial fabulism.)

Here’s just one of the examples:

Mamluk-era astrolabe, 1282, Photo: Mustafa-trit20 CC CC BY-SA 4.0

So I sketched the layout accordingly, taking a rectangular slice of a hypothetical astrolabe. This created the rather rare situation of making it pretty clear where on the page just about everything needed to go. I did not have to consider, for example, the likely paths of watercourses, or the change in types of trees over an area, or puzzle out the relative distances alluded to in the novel.

And it was a lot of fun dealing with miniature geographies — both those requiring plausibly-deniable accuracy and those heavily invented (but still guided by existing imagery). I’ve written before about the appeal of miniature groves, and that fascination fed into the map, too.

Once this concept had been approved by all concerned (art director, author, editor), I then drew an arrangement of circles on the computer to use as guidelines.

I make no secret that I don’t do straight lines or accurate geometries in my art. But I’ll sometimes rule lines up to function as a template around which I can work. These usually are softened and obscured by layers of sketches and changes, and I don’t mind if my own drawings are inaccurate, but at least the suggestion of a nod in the direction of plausibility lingers.

Using those lines and the sketch as a a base, I then developed the more detailed pencils for the map. You can just see the greyed-out circle guidelines.

I hand-lettered the place names in my own loopy writing on a separate piece of paper. But this quick placement of lettering makes sure that I (a) allow enough room for the words and (b) don’t put important details in places that will be hidden by labels. (I drew the lettering and scrolls separately so that the publisher can easily move them around / edit text / translate it.)

The grey band down the centre of the page above is to stop me putting important details where they could vanish into the spine.

Then I scan the pencil sketch in again, darken it, print it out, put it under nice drawing paper (Canson illustration 250) on the light box, and start inking.

I used a dip pen and Winsor & Newton black ink.

Once I can trick myself into starting, I love this stage: turning those aspirational little pencil scribbles into final ink drawings, with shadows and movement and personality.

Playing with hatching and texture.

Filling the space between the stars.

Drawing the tiniest dumpsters.

Then I scan and clean the linework, layer in the text, and send it to Karina:

I will post the interviews soon. In the meantime, Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds has been published and is available through all good bookstores!

A few older map posts:

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